For years, doctors have been telling patients that calcium is the key to strong bones. They have recommended a healthy, calcium-filled diet and even gone so far as to recommend supplements to fill in any gaps. But what if everything we have been told about calcium and its role in building strong bones was not true? What if all those years of drinking milk and eating leafy greens didn’t make a bit of difference after all? Could this possibly be true?
The easiest answer to that question is that calcium is crucial during prime bone-building years, but that might be the end of its usefulness. Up until the age of 35, our bodies are building and strengthening bones to last a lifetime. After that period, bone-building still occurs, but it is accompanied by bone deterioration. Once bone deterioration begins to outpace bone building, a condition called osteoporosis can occur. Bones become weak and porous. They are susceptible to easy fracture with very little pressure.
The stronger your bones are to begin with, the longer it will take for deterioration to occur. So plenty of calcium through diet is an excellent recommendation for adults into their 30s.
For older adults, doctors have recommended calcium supplements as a way for older adults to meet their daily calcium needs, but it turns out that excess calcium from supplements and dairy may actually do more harm than good in adults over 50.
Dr. Ian Reid of the University of Auckland in New Zealand and his colleagues did a meta-analysis of 59 randomized, controlled-trial studies of calcium intake as it relates to increasing bone density and decreasing the risk of fracture. They found that calcium intake through supplements or food had no significant benefit to bone density but increased the risk of cardiovascular conditions, including myocardial infarction.
Many assumed that these studies showing no benefit indicated that calcium from food was ineffective and instead used calcium supplements. Reid’s team found startling evidence that supplements were equally ineffective at best, and, in some cases, downright dangerous. Reid noted that,
“Clinical trials of calcium supplements at doses of 1,000 mg/day, however, have reported adverse effects, including cardiovascular events, kidney stones, and hospital admissions for acute gastrointestinal symptoms. Consequently, older people have been encouraged to improve bone health by increasing their calcium intake through food rather than by taking supplements. This advice assumes that increasing dietary calcium intake to the recommended level of 1,200 mg a day or more prevents fractures without causing the adverse effects of calcium supplements.”
But even calcium through food in older adults did not go very far to prevent fractures. The team found that study participants who consumed their recommended daily allowance of calcium through food rather than supplements had marginally stronger bones but no fewer fractures than the supplement groups.
This recent study is not the first to point out the dangers of calcium supplementation relative to its perceived benefits. Dr. Karl Michaelsson, a professor and orthopedic surgeon at Uppsala University in Sweden, found in 2013 that women with a daily calcium intake of 1,400 milligrams or more not only doubled their risk of heart disease but also increase their risk of death from any cause by 40%. Other studies have found an increase in kidney stones, but the real danger is in calcium’s potential for heart disease.
The news for calcium is not all bad.
There is evidence that calcium and vitamin D can help lower high cholesterol in postmenopausal women. There is some indication that it is the increased level of vitamin D that has the best effect on cholesterol levels. Another study found that increasing levels of vitamin D and calcium for seniors at high risk for fracture could help prevent fracture, but again, vitamin and calcium had to be taken concurrently and at safe levels.
Even with a few studies that showed potential benefits, the evidence against calcium supplementation (or increased consumption through food) is mounting.
In order to maintain bone health, the best thing to do is follow traditional recommendations for general overall health.
Weight-bearing exercise like running, hiking, and walking are the best for maintaining bone density. While low-impact exercises like swimming and yoga are great for some aspects of health, exercise that bears the weight of the body is best.
Start any new exercise program slowly after talking to your doctor. Aim for an end goal of at least 30 minutes of daily weight-bearing exercise (45 if you are in good health and are cleared by your doctor). Even if you begin with a five-minute walk down the block, that’s a start.
Proper diet means including plenty of fresh fruit, leafy greens, and yes, calcium-rich foods like milk and other dairy products. But don’t go overboard. Calcium consumption should be limited to between 800 and 1,000 milligrams per day.
Throw out the supplements and focus on planning meals and menus that are well-rounded and nutrient-rich.
This research may feel like a stunning reversal in health recommendations, but it just reinforces what many people already knew to be true: staying active and eating a nutritious diet always beats the quick-fix.
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